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The Coronavirus Pandemic and Work: What Are My Rights?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic became more serious in March of 2020, the subject of working outside of the home and what obligations companies have to their employees has been discussed at length. Many workers have concerns about catching the virus at work, and reasonably so, as some people can remain contagious for upwards of 20 days. Some employees are concerned that their company will not give them adequate sick leave if they catch the virus, or that their company is not implementing safety protocols. However, workers do have some legal protections during the pandemic.

How Do I Know If I Have the Coronavirus?

COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is one of the most contagious viruses on record. It is transferred very easily from person to person and can still be caught when precautions are put in place. Some of the symptoms of COVID-19, which can appear 2 to 14 days after exposure, are:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Cough
  • Fatigue, muscle and body aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Congestion, runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

Although most of these symptoms are common for a lot of different illness, they should be red flags for you to pay attention to your health and potentially get tested for COVID-19. The only sure way to know whether you have the coronavirus is to get tested. If you experience severe symptoms such as trouble breathing, chest pain, or confusion, seek emergency medical care immediately.

What Legal Protections Do Workers Have if They Catch COVID?

Due to the severity and contagiousness of COVID-19, the federal government has introduced certain protections for workers pertaining to the pandemic. One of these benefits was the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, also known as FFCRA. From April until December of 2020, this act was mandated by the government and all employers had to provide paid sick leave and additional medical or family leave to their employees. This is no longer a requirement. However, the government expanded the benefits as an option for companies up until September 2021.

As of October 2021, certain COVID-19 cases can be eligible for additional time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. To be eligible for this additional time, you must:

  • Have been employed by your company for at least 1 full year
  • Have at least 1,250 hours of work logged for the company within that first year
  • Work somewhere that has at least 50 employees within 75 miles

To qualify for FMLA leave, a COVID case must be serious enough to meet the following requirements:

  • A hospital stay or a stay in another medical facility that lasts longer than one overnight
  • Health poor enough that it incapacitates you for more than 3 days (consecutive) and includes medical treatment that is ongoing, such as multiple appointments or prescription medicine
  • A chronic condition (such as long COVID) that causes incapacitation at least twice a year

The FMLA applies to family members as well. Therefore, if you were to take care of a family member with COVID, you could apply for FMLA leave yourself.

It is also worth noting that the FFCRA is retroactive. If you took time off during the period your company was required to provide extra time off (April to December of 2020) or during a later time your company was participating, you can request a reimbursement through the FFCRA. The statute of limitations on such cases is two years from the dates you took off. If your company failed to pay you when they were required to under FFCRA, you can file a complaint with the Wage and Hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Does My Company Have to Provide Protective Gear or Additional Cleaning at Work?

Unfortunately, there is no federal requirement for companies to provide any sort of COVID-19 prevention program or personal protective gear for their employees. Many companies have chosen to do so, however, and some of their plans include such things as:

  • Ensuring at least 6 feet of physical distance between employees and customers or coworkers
  • Providing face masks to employees or requiring them to wear one
  • Requiring face masks for customers
  • Providing additional protective gear for employees, such as hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes and cleansers
  • Improving ventilation in work areas
  • Additional cleaning and deep cleaning any time a COVID case is confirmed in the office
  • Notifying workers when cases are found

Companies set these standards in order to prevent their employees from feeling unsafe or getting sick at work, therefore lowering the overall number of sick days taken.

While there is no federal requirement for companies to provide a COVID-safe workspace for their employees, it has become law that all employers with 100 or more employees require vaccination or weekly COVID testing for their employees. This has been met with some controversy; however, it is a federal requirement that is intended to keep workers safe and prevent further lockdowns.

Depending on what industry you work in, vaccination might be mandated for your whole company. Currently, vaccination is mandated for all federal workers as well as healthcare workers at facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. In addition to this, many companies are requiring proof of vaccination or testing for entry to their place of business.

Although this rule has yet to be implemented, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is developing a requirement that will mandate all employers with more than 100 employees to provide ample time off for their employees to get vaccinated, including recovery time afterwards if the employee is feeling under the weather.

Can I Be Fired If I Do Not Come to Work When Sick?

The short answer to this question is yes, unfortunately. If you have tested positive for COVID-19 and your case does not qualify for FMLA leave, your employer can decide to terminate your employment with them if you do not show for work. Most states regulate work on an “at will” basis, meaning your company can terminate you at any time without notice, just as you can quit without notice. If you become sick and miss a lot of work (outside of any paid sick time you may have), your job can legally fire you for frequent absences. While this may seem morally questionable, companies retain the right to terminate their working relationship with you for any reason, so long as that reason is legal.

Contact an Attorney Today

If you have been terminated from your job because you did not come to work when sick and believe the termination was illegal, or if you believe negligence on behalf of your company is responsible for your COVID case, contact Masella Law today. With nearly 30 years of experience litigating criminal and family law cases, we provide personalized and compassionate care for our clients. We understand that we are living in unprecedented times and there is a lot of fear regarding the coronavirus, and the care we provide for our clients is understanding and comprehensive. We can advise you regarding the most effective strategy for your specific circumstances. Contact us today at (803) 938-4952 or via our contact page.